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The Political Self

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This book explores how our social and economic contexts profoundly affect our mental health and wellbeing, and how modern neuroscientific and psychodynamic research can both contribute to and enrich our understanding of these wider discussions. It therefore looks both inside and outside - indeed one of the main themes of The Political Self is that the conceptually discrete categories of 'inner' and 'outer' in reality constantly interact, shape, and inform each other. Severing these two worlds, it suggests, has led both to a devitalised and dissociated form of politics, and to a disengaged and disempowering form of therapy and analysis.With contributions by: Joel Bakan, John Beveridge, Nick Duffell, Sue Gerhardt, Dave Grossman, James Hillman, Joel Kovel, Iain McGilchrist, Jonathan Rowson, David Smail, Nick Totton, and Michael Ventura

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11 Chapters

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Chapter One - Understanding the Social Context of Individual Distress

ePub

David Smail

Introduction

Therapeutic psychology has been going long enough now for it to have a discernible history. The story of its development since the last quarter of the nineteenth century is in fact a familiar one and I am not going to repeat it here (an excellent all-round account of the development of therapeutic psychology can be found in Dilys Davies, Counselling in Psychological Services). There are, however, just a few features of this story that I would like to pick out for particular comment.

The most striking thing of all is how “psychotherapy”, in becoming one of the greatest cultural and commercial success stories of the Western world, remained over the past hundred years almost hermetically sealed off from the rest of reality. It was in fact as if the world had split in two: the West introvertedly preoccupied with the workings of the individual psyche, the East extrovertedly concerning itself with the machinery of material relations within society.

 

Chapter Two - Power in the Therapeutic Relationship

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Nick Totton

Can anyone do effective therapy without becoming an instrument of social control, without participating and contributing, often unknowingly, to the construction or the maintenance of a dominant discourse of oppression?

—Cecchin, 1993, p. ix

Psychotherapy is the only profession where the practitioner can be insensitive, evasive, patronising, arrogant, discourteous, self-righteous or just plain wrong and where clients’ observations of this can be taken to be an expression of their problems, evidence that what they really need is more of the same therapy.

—Sands, 2003, p. 15

Introduction

The psychotherapy relationship is vulnerable to the abuse of power, from hard-to-define but nonetheless damaging emotional manipulation to very concrete behaviours such as financial and sexual exploitation. These abuses are fairly common; but how far are they part of the structure of the psychotherapy relationship and the feelings it fosters—exaggerated versions, perhaps of something underlying every therapeutic encounter? I will focus on how the structure of psychotherapy builds in stubborn problems of power and control, irrespective of the good intentions or otherwise of the practitioner.

 

Chapter Three - Therapy in Late Capitalism

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Joel Kovel

Introduction

A radical approaching the institution of psychotherapy often feels inclined to impale it with a barb updated from Marx's judgment on religion: where once was the opium of the people, here stands their heroin, a new, synthetic addiction, concocted out of the brew of late capitalist culture. The hostility is understandable, since therapy has in some respects been even more successful than religion in deflecting energy from the need for radical social change. Religion at least threatened capital with its immanent critique; like a superannuated retainer it reminded its master of a time when his power had not yet come to be, and therefore of one when it would pass away. Therapy, on the other hand, appears seamless: even when pretending to be transcendent, the reward it dangles is no eschatological grappling with ultimates but an ultimately mundane, “sensible” happiness, quite eligible for commodification. What is needed is a concrete and precise analysis of the many-sidedness of the phenomenon, situating it within the totality of its society and drawing attention to its liberating elements. In short, we must unearth the latent critical content of therapy, and set it against its more obvious conformism.

 

Chapter Four - The Selfish Society: The Current State of Things

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Sue Gerhardt

Introduction

Right from the start we are all responsive to other human beings. Even newborn babies have a basic capacity to imitate others and to resonate with other people's feelings through their brain's mirror neurons. If you copy a smile, you often feel happier, and if you copy a yawn, you are likely to feel more tired. We need this ability to be social creatures. To the brain, self and other are part of the same process. In fact, it's the same area of the brain—the right frontal insula, in particular—which lights up whether we are being aware of our own body states or other people's.

Many years ago, my studies in early childhood observation under the auspices of the Tavistock Clinic in London gave me my first insights into babies’ mental development. Although already a mother twice over, watching babies on a weekly basis for over two years enabled me to see the process of development more objectively. It stimulated my interest in the impact of those early experiences on the baby's brain, so I immersed myself in reading widely in the literature of neurobiology. I found myself in an Aladdin's cave of fascinating material which confirmed that the brain is not a machine which operates in glorious isolation, but a nervous system which is designed to respond to the environment in which we find ourselves, and to help us predict what will happen in that environment. Brains are shaped by experience, and the quality of care and attention we receive as babies affects the neurobiology of our brains. Early brain development, in particular, is very rapid and sets up many biochemical systems and neural pathways that we will continue to use for the rest of our lives.

 

Chapter Five - Divided Brain, Divided World

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Jonathan Rowson and lain McGilchrist

Introduction

JR: The notion that we are rational individuals who respond to information by making decisions consciously, consistently, and independently is, at best, a very partial account of who we are. A wide body of scientific knowledge is now telling us what many have long intuitively sensed—humans are a fundamentally social species, formed through and for social interaction, and most of our behaviour is habitual. The discussion and reflections that follow feature an inquiry into a singularly profound, complex and fascinating thesis about the relationship between our brains and the world. Through this inquiry, I attempt to illustrate what a mature discussion about the social and political relevance of neuroscience might look like.

Rather than thinking about the link between brain and behaviour as if it always has to be direct and reductive, and then proceeding to argue about the significance of the link, the discussion that follows takes a different route. Iain McGilchrist's work provides a fresh and powerful perspective because the route from brain to behaviour is mediated by phenomenology and values. The Master and His Emissary, the book that informs the following discussion, is about the profound significance of the fact that the left and right hemispheres of our brains have radically different “world views” (McGilchrist, 2009). The hidden story of Western culture, as told by the author, is about how the abstract, instrumental, articulate, and assured left hemisphere has gradually usurped the more contextual, humane, systemic, holistic, but relatively tentative and inarticulate right hemisphere.

 

Chapter Six - Born to Run: Wounded Leaders and Boarding School Survivors

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Nick Duffell

Introduction

This chapter provides a psychological profile for what I have termed the “Wounded Leader” and a brief psychohistorical overview of the genesis of the attitudes that underlie this type.

Despite the complexities involved in explaining it fully and the controversy that it inspires, the chief point of this chapter is simple enough. Because our elite are raised in boarding schools—away from their families, out of the reach of love, far from the influence of any feminine values and so on—we have been perpetuating a situation in which a grave disservice is done to individuals and the whole of our society. For we have been replicating, by means of a perfected, “industrialised” process, a type of Wounded Leader, no longer knowing why we are doing it or even that we are doing it. Notwithstanding the costly privileges of such an education, it consistently turns out people who appear much more competent than they actually are, especially in terms of non-rational skills, such as those needed to sustain relationships. This is the principal reason I use the surprising word “wounded”.

 

Chapter Seven - On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society

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Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

War has always interested me; not war in the sense of maneuvers devised by great generals…but the reality of war, the actual killing. I was more interested to know in what way and under the influence of what feelings one soldier kills another than to know how the armies were arranged at Austerlitz and Borodino.

—Leo Tolstoy

Introduction

Why should we study killing? One might just as readily ask, Why study sex? The two questions have much in common. Every society has a blind spot, an area into which it has great difficulty looking. Today that blind spot is killing. A century ago it was sex.

Sex is a natural and essential part of life. A society that has no sex has no society in one generation. Today our society has begun the slow, painful process of escaping from the pathological dichotomy of simultaneous sexual repression and obsession. But we may have begun our escape from one denial only to fall into a new and possibly even more dangerous one. A new repression, revolving around killing and death, precisely parallels the pattern established by the previous sexual repression.

 

Chapter Eight - A Tangled Web: Internet Pornography, Sexual Addiction, and the Erosion of Attachment

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John Beveridge

Children today have everything but they are lost, like tiny boats at sea.

—Mongolian farmer, BBC World Service, 2014

Introduction

Today and every day, there are apparently sixty-eight million search engine requests for pornography and over four million websites, which are all part of a huge industry whose profits have outstripped those of Hollywood and the music industry. In these troubled times, the three escapist industries that seem to be recession-proof are communications technology, computer games, and pornography. The publishers of porn have never needed sales strategies or planning meetings, and neither do they have to advertise or market pornography; it just sells. There were sexually explicit paintings on the walls of houses of Pompeii because people, mainly men, have always used graphic images of bodies and people having sex as a stimulus to masturbation. The sale of erotic and pornographic images has spread and prospered as delivery systems and technology have become more sophisticated. After the invention of the printing press, followed by photography, film, then video and DVD, there came computers.

 

Chapter Nine - The Corporation as a Pathological Institution

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Joel Bakan

Introduction

Over the last 150 years the corporation has risen from relative obscurity to become the world's dominant economic institution. Today, corporations govern our lives. They determine what we eat, what we watch, what we wear, where we work, and what we do. We are inescapably surrounded by their culture, iconography, and ideology. And, like the Church and monarchy in other times, they posture as infallible and omnipotent, glorifying themselves in imposing buildings and elaborate displays. Increasingly, corporations dictate the decisions of their supposed overseers in government and control domains of society once firmly embedded within the public sphere.

The corporation's legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others. As a result, I argue, the corporation is a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and societies. That raises a number of questions: How did the corporation become what it is today? What is the nature, and what are the implications, of its pathological character and of its power over society? And what should and can be done to mitigate its potential to cause harm? By revealing the institutional imperatives common to all corporations and their implications for society, I hope to provide a crucial and missing link in people's attempts to understand and do something about some of the most pressing issues of our time.

 

Chapter Ten - We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—and the World's Getting Worse

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James Hillman and Michael Ventura

Two men are on an afternoon walk in Santa Monica, on the Pacific Palisades. They began their walk on the Santa Monica Pier, with its rundown carnival air, where the affluent and the homeless pass among each other—and among Latinos from East L.A. and the new Central American ghettos; blacks from South Central; Asians from Chinatown, Koreatown, and the Japanese enclaves; pale whites from Culver City and North Hollywood; tan, svelte whites from West L.A.; old people of all descriptions and accents; and tourists from everywhere. The poor fish for food off the pier, though signs in English and Spanish tell them it's dangerous to eat their catch. The beach is often closed from sewage spills. But the ocean doesn't show its filth, it looks as lovely as always, and it's anywhere from ten to thirty degrees cooler at the Pacific than even just a few miles inland—so everybody comes.

The two men have walked the steady incline up the Palisades, along the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway and the sea, and, at the far end of the park, where the cliffs are highest and there aren't so many people, they've sat down on a beach.

 

Appendix - Additional Resources

ePub

The following is a selection of organisations and websites for anyone wanting to explore further the themes of this book. As many of its contributors note, one of the most effective ways of integrating the outer and inner is through practical involvement and engagement, rather than sitting in a bedroom or indeed a consulting room: through transforming the world we transform ourselves.

 

Social Power and Psychological Distress: A Social Materialist Approach to Clinical Psychology (David Smail's website)

“Hardly any of the ‘symptoms’ of psychological distress may correctly be seen as medical matters. The so-called psychiatric ‘disorders’ are nothing to do with faulty biology, nor indeed are they the outcome of individual moral weakness or other personal failing. They are the creation of the social world in which we live, and that world is structured by power.

“Social power may be defined as the means of obtaining security or advantage, and it will be exercised within any given society in a variety of forms: coercive (force), economic (money power) and ideological (the control of meaning). Power is the dynamic which keeps the social world in motion. It may be used for good or for ill.

 

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